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“We’re not living in the Victorian Age”

July 26, 2013 26 comments

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’ (… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies…)

I started reading Vile Bodies just after the dreadful Scarlet Letter and I read most of it on a hot summer afternoon, lying in a hammock under the apple tree in the garden. No children playing around, no noise, a perfect peaceful moment. These happy circumstances might have influenced my appreciation of the book.

Vile Bodies opens with a nightmarish crossing of the Channel between Calais and Dover. All the characters that we will follow in the novel are here. The sea is rough; all passengers are struggling against seasickness. There’s Mrs Ape and her group of religious singers, reborn Christians and renamed after virtues. I laughed when she called the roll on the boat:

‘Faith.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Charity.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Fortitude.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Chastity… Where is Chastity?’ ‘Chastity didn’t feel well, Mrs Ape. She went below.’

While the American Christian choir sings holy songs ad nauseam to drive away queasiness, the men feel sick too but it would damage their virility to acknowledge it:

 ‘You know I’m funny. I never feel sea-sick, mind, but I often find going on boats doesn’t agree with me.’ ‘I’m like that, too.’ ‘Ventilation… a disgrace.’

Waugh_Vile_BodiesSo I sort of fell in love with Waugh’s style and wits immediately. The first chapter is funny, engaging and full of weird personalities. Adam is our main character. An aspiring writer, he’s coming back from France with his memoirs in his suitcase. A publisher is waiting for the book and he’s engaged to be married to Nina Blount. The future seems bright for him. Unfortunately, the Custom officers decide that his book isn’t suitable for reading and burn the manuscript. So Adam is back to London without money and without perspectives to earn some any time soon since he doesn’t have another copy of his manuscript. He phones Nina to let her know they wouldn’t be able to get married as scheduled. Adam settles at a pension, one of those places you encounter in books but have disappeared now. All along the book, Adam is running after money and his chances of marrying Nina vary according to the content of his wallet.

Waugh was a member of a group of Londoner socialites that the press named Bright Young People.  They organized wild parties, scandalized the old society. They were reckless and they shook up the old values. They didn’t want to live like their parents. Waugh put a bit of himself in Adam. Adam made me laugh but irritated me at times for his lack of good sense. His main goal is to marry Nina and money is an obstacle. He should be actively looking for a job but he idly hangs out with his friends instead. He lacks of focus for the only thing important to him. And when luck is on his side, he sabotages it out of stupidity or carelessness. For example, he gets 1000 £ by chance and instead of keeping them preciously, he gives them to a drunken major to bet on a dubious horse. And, how can you have only ONE copy of the manuscript you’ve spent hours working on?

The book broaches many subjects. It describes the thirst for happiness and fun after the war. However despite the lights and the apparent lightness, it’s bittersweet. These young people don’t know exactly what they want from life or what they want to do with their life. They reject the values and ways of living of their parents but still have to invent their own. For me, Vile Bodies is a testimony of the beginning of the 20thC, the one that, according to historians, actually started after WWI. The Bright Young People have occupations derived from industries that developed during the war. They party in a balloon, they participate to car races. Waugh is a keen observer of his society. Here are the domestics at an aristocrat’s house trying to define a status for Mrs Ape’s choir (the “angels”) who is to perform for the guests:

(There had been a grave debate in the servants’ hall about the exact status of angels. Even Mr Blenkinsop, the butler, had been uncertain. ‘Angels are certainly not guests,’ he had said, ‘and I don’t think they are deputations. Nor they ain’t governesses either, nor clergy not strictly speaking; they’re not entertainers, because entertainers dine nowadays, the more’s the pity.’ ‘I believe they’re decorators,’ said Mrs Blouse, ‘or else charitable workers.’ ‘Charitable workers are governesses, Mrs Blouse. There is nothing to be gained by multiplying social distinctions indefinitely. Decorators are either guests or workmen.’ After further discussion the conclusion was reached that angels were nurses, and that became the official ruling of the household. But the second footman was of the opinion that they were just ‘young persons’, pure and simple, ‘and very nice too’, for nurses cannot, except in very rare cases, be winked at, and clearly angels could.)

Waugh caught that the society was at a turning point. The war has shattered the old status quo. The pieces of the social puzzle have been moved and need to find a new place to create a brand new picture.

While writing Vile Bodies, Waugh’s wife left him. He said it impacted the tone of the book and I could feel it, even if I read about this afterwards. It becomes darker in the end and I have to say that the ending left me a bit confused. Anyway, Waugh has an incredible sense of humor and I’m sure I didn’t get everything a native English speaker could get out of the text. The names of characters are funny and the text is full of little remarks and cheeky comparisons on a humorous tone, like this one:

Adam gave her – the spaniel, not Mrs Florin – a gentle prod with his foot and a lump of sugar. She licked his shoe with evident cordiality. Adam was not above feeling flattered by friendliness in dogs.

Isn’t it excellent? And of course, there’s the amazing passage I published earlier.

Vile Bodies is worth reading for its funny style, for the observation of the London life of the time and for the set of characters. It felt like the English equivalent of a novel written by Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I was asked if there is a French counterpart to this literature about the bubbly 1920s. I couldn’t find any. I searched through the novel published in the 1920s and 1930s and didn’t find any. I only thought about Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. There were wild parties in Paris at the time but the French authors weren’t writing about them. The 1920s are the years Gallimard published most of the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. If I stick to writers born around 1900 like Waugh and Fitzgerald, I didn’t find a famous book resembling Vile Bodies. At the time, Malraux published The Conquerors, Cocteau created Les Enfants terribles. Jean Giono wrote Harvest, Joseph Kessel, Belle de Jour. Let me know if you are aware of a French novel close to Vile Bodies.

Nothing beats English politeness

July 20, 2013 9 comments

‘We want diner,’ said Adam, ‘and a room for the night.’
‘Darling, am I going to be seduced?’
‘I’m afraid you are. Do you mind terribly?’
‘Not as much as all that,’  said Nina, and added in Cockney, ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’

I just love this dialogue from Vile Bodied by Evelyn Waugh. You’ll never find anything like this in a French novel.

More of Waugh in an upcoming billet.

The Scarlet letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

July 17, 2013 27 comments

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1850. French title: La lettre écarlate.

book_club_2The Scarlet Letter is the last book our reading year at my book club, Les Copines d’Abord. It started with a long prologue about an old Custom House, the feeling of belonging to a place and rambling about being a civil servant. It takes 15% of the book and it has nothing to do with the actual story of The Scarlet Letter, except for the old device of the author discovering old papers in the Custom House and relating the story. While it is beautifully written at times, it can be pompous at others and difficult to read. At some point I left the sluggish snail’s pace of reading in English and put on my Frog’s legs and leapt to the end of it via the French translation. Hawthorne almost wore me out with this prologue. But I persisted.

Then The Scarlet Letter. At last, I thought. I didn’t know much about it, only that the theme was adultery. Given the title, I actually imagined that the letter referred to shocking correspondence on shocking stationery. Ahem… Now, the story.

Hawthorner_Scarlet_LetterHester Prynne is on the pillory because she had a child out of wedlock. She didn’t help her case when she refused to reveal the name of her little Pearl’s father. The pillory is very real, not metaphorical at all. I must say we’re in New England in the 17thC, in a Puritan settlement so what she did is highly reprehensible and all the good people of the city think they will save her soul by humiliating her in the market place. Hester was sent to prison for a while and now she’s being released in this very public fashion; she’s condemned to wear an embroidered scarlet letter A sown on her bosom. The novella is about her life after this event.

Follows a novella à la mode gothique. Nothing is missing. Sin. Tortured women and priests. Impossible love. Revenge. Witches. Epiphanies in woods. Implausible coincidences. An elfish daughter who seems otherworldly. I was under the impression that the Victor Hugo of Notre Dame de Paris had an illegitimate child with Marie Shelley or Emily Brontë. Not my cup of tea at all.

I switched to the French translation again towards the end because the English was really difficult. The dialogues, when there were some, were full of archaisms. I know what thou / thee mean but dialogues full of sentences like this He sent even me, thy mother. Then, much more thee! Or, if not, thou strange and elfish child, whence didst thou come?” remain challenging. However, it’s totally lost in translation and I wouldn’t have been aware of it if I had stuck to the French translation only. Honestly, I don’t know how a translator could have reproduced this in French. Changing the “ai” terminations of verbs at the imparfait tense in “oi” like in the 17thC?

The text is full of long sentences without breathing space, the kind that leaves you breathless. Sometimes his syntax is complicated: And then what a happiness would it have been could Hester Prynne have heard her clear, bird-like voice mingling with the uproar of other childish voices. I need several readings to undertand it. He can although hint at a wry sense of humour:

At all events, the health of the good town of Boston, so far as medicine had aught to do with it, had hitherto lain in the guardianship of an aged deacon and apothecary, whose piety and godly deportment were stronger testimonials in his favour than any that he could have produced in the shape of a diploma. The only surgeon was one who combined the occasional exercise of that noble art with the daily and habitual flourish of a razor. To such a professional body Roger Chillingworth was a brilliant acquisition.

mafalda_reflechitI know he writes well, that his style is special and that it’s great literature but it didn’t speak to me. While I was reading I kept wondering what Flaubert would have done with such a pitch. Or Fontane. Hester’s story is a compelling one, true material for a great novel. The gothic paraphernalia disappointed me and put me off. If you have read it, I’m interested in discussing this strange novel with you. What’s the purpose of that prologue? (It reminded me of the one in Frankenstein) Why did he choose this literary tradition to tell this story?

Maybe some of you have forgotten what companies really do. So let me remind you: they make as much money as possible.

July 12, 2013 21 comments

Jennifer Government by Max Barry, 2003. French title: Jennifer Gouvernement.

“A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government”  Thomas Jefferson, 1801.

Barry_Jennifer_GovernmentThis quote from Jefferson is at the beginning of Jennifer Government. What did Max Barry do with such a statement? He took it LITERALLY. So we’re in a 21st century imaginary world where the Earth is divided in three zones, seen from an American point of view: the United States Federated Blocs (USA/Australia/UK/Russia/South America), the Non-United States Federated Blocs (Europe/China) and the Fragmented Markets (Africa/Middle East). The whole novel is set in the US Federated Blocs. Here, the government has no money because taxes were abolished, market laws rule everything and there aren’t any regulations unless you do something very illegal such as killing someone. It’s full employment and people’s surname is the name of the company they work for.

It all starts in America and ends up with a butterfly effect coming from the corporate world. Hack Nike, a merchandising officer, is thirsty and the water fountain on his floor is empty. He goes downstairs to catch a bit of water and stumbles upon John Nike, Guerilla Marketing VP and John Nike, Guerilla Marketing Operative. The John Nikes have decided of a new marketing plan to better sell the Mercury, their new luxury sneaker. They’ve already made it scarce on the market to increase its value and make people want to have a pair at any cost. Now, they want to move their plan to the next level. They’re about to drop thousands of pairs in shops and want to kill 10 customers at random once they have purchased Mercuries to make it look as if people are ready to kill to have these sneakers. They just need someone to do the job now. Hack is there and they lure him into thinking they promote him from merchandising to a great marketing if he just signs this contract written in small letters. Hack signs it without reading it and then learns what he has to do: he’s in charge of picking and killing the ten victims. When he enquires about the legality of the said task, here is the answer he gets from the two Johns:

“He wants to know if it’s illegal,” the other John said, amused. “You’re a funny guy Hack. Yes, it’s illegal, killing people without their consent, that’s very illegal.”

Vice President John said, “But the question is: what does it cost? Even if we get found out, we burn a few million on legal fees, we get fined a few million more…bottom-line, we’re still way out in front”

That’s pretty much the tone of the book. Hack doesn’t have the guts to kill 10 people himself but can’t get out of the job. That’s when things become global: he goes to the police to subcontract them the job. And the police subcontract it to the NRA. The killing is done and several people get involved in the plot. Jennifer Government is the government agent who was sent on the premises of the killing. She has a personal reason to track down John Nike and she’s really after him. Buy Mitsui attempts to rescue a girl from the killing but can’t because he doesn’t give his credit card number fast enough to 911 and they don’t send an ambulance without upfront payment. Billy is accidentally enrolled by the NRA and is caught up in their net of criminal doings. But more importantly, the world is divided into two major customer programs, Team Alliance and US Alliance. Each program elects a company in its field to be part of the program so Team Alliance is basically composed of companies in direct competition with the ones of US Alliance. The NRA and Nike are with US Alliance; the Police is with Team Alliance. Things escalate to a real war between the two majors networks and it’s up to you to discover what happens next.

I had a LOT of a fun reading this book. It’s dystopian fiction spiced up with a devilish sense of humour. The police? They broadcast ads to attract clients and their theme song is Every Breath You Take. Companies? Only interested in the bottom line of their P&L. Employees? Sheep that would give up anything for a discount and buy anything that is marketed as a “must have”. Schools? Sponsored by corporations which work on their programs and give toys, furniture and stationery. The Government? No taxes, no budget, they have to raise money from the families of the victims to start an investigation. Hear Calvin Governement when the news of the killing comes to him:

“Fourteen dead. At least eight were contract killings, all from families of limited means. At this stage it looks like the victims were selected for low incomes. I hate to say it, but it’s going to be tough to get budget on this one.”

It’s not real but it’s so close. Only money matters. And market shares. John Nike is the villain but he only gets his way because everybody is ready to give up part of their freedom of movement, of speech or of thinking for a bargain.

Being French and reading this is even funnier as France is mentioned in the book as a comparison to what America and its affiliated countries have become. I have to say that the quote by Jefferson shocked me. As a French, this is totally foreign to my DNA. I will never think that accepting inequalities and not sharing wealth through taxes or welfare is a good thing. Never ever. That’s why I’ll never understand how rich America can be a country without free health care or affordable universities. But enough of the heavy.

As an anecdote, I’ve learned a new expression. “Gregory was talking to a couple of big US Alliance cheeses, including Alfonse, the CEO”. I didn’t know what a big cheese is. Translated literally, I can’t say it sounds really positive in French. But the corresponding French expression (un gros bonnet, a big hat) may not sound too grand in English either. Anway.

Jennifer Government is written like a thought-provoking action movie. It’s a page turner, it’s fun, upbeat and incredibly sarcastic. I have a girly crush on writer Max Barry. I’ve already read Company and Syrup and I loved them too. I wish he came with me to the office and spent a few months in the French corporate world. Then he would write a killing novel featuring moronic unionists with undeserved power, unworkable regulations voted with the best intentions by MPs who have never set a foot in a company and puzzled foreigners wondering how things can still work despite all these complexity and obstacles. Come Max, I’ll sneak you in as my intern and you’ll work undercover.

Book Club: new selection

July 7, 2013 26 comments

Our Book Club year ends in July with The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’ll write a billet about it in a couple of days or weeks, depending of how fast I read it. Meanwhile we’ve been preparing our list for our third year of reading together. As always, you’re invited to join us for as many books as you want, whenever you want. Just leave a comment in my billet about the book you’ve read or paste the link to your review.

Since I’m the worst bookworm of the group, we’ve mostly been browsing through my enormous TBR to pick our new books. So, we’ll be reading:

August: The Odd Women by George Gissing. (UK, 1893) We start with a book which is not available in French, so we’ll all be reading in English. It has already been the case for some books last year, we’ve all improved and feel more comfortable with the language. I had never heard of Gissing before reading Guy’s post about New Grub Street and when he reviewed The Odd Women I knew right away I wanted to read it. I’m always eager to read about the condition of women, whatever the century. Discover Guy’s review here.

September: The Pets by Braggi Olafsson. (Iceland, 2010) Another one we owe to Guy’s eclectic tastes for books. It’s an Icelandic novel and it sounded funny in the department of odd relationships between bipeds. Max has reviewed it here.

October: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. (Ireland, 2009) This one is totally different from the previous month. It’s been on my TBR since Max’s excellent review. I’m a bit worried about the language but it’s available in French if need be. It explores the feelings of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to New York. When I visited Ellis Island, I thought about all the people who’d been through that place and how brave or desperate they must have been to leave everything and everyone they knew to start a new life in America.

November: Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov. (Russia, 1996) That’s again another discovery from Guy’s blog. In Gros Câlin by Romain Gary, M. Cousin befriends a python he names Gros Câlin. (Big Hug) In this one, the main character Viktor has a penguin, Misha. Add to the mix gangsters and adventures and you have what seems to be an original and funny book. So I expect.

December: Contempt by Alberto Moravia. (Italy, 1954) I haven’t seen the film (yet) and I’ve had in mind to read Moravia for a long time now. I’m glad my Book Club friends were also interested in reading this novel.

January: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. (UK, 1954) I just noticed it will be two books in a row that were published in 1954. After reading David Lodge, campus novels always sound attractive, so how can you not be tempted by Lucky JimGuy reviewed it a few months ago, after it was republished by NYRB.

February: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (UK, 2011) Well, I suppose everyone in the blogosphere has heard about this one. There are many many many reviews. I’ll just add my thoughts to the pile.

March: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (UK, 1847) I really enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and I’m very interested in Agnes Grey and what Anne Brontë has to say about the status of governess. Edith has reviewed it here.

April: How to Be Good by Nick Hornby (UK, 2001) This is for the fun, which is a perfectly valid reason to read a book. We’ve all read Hornby before and are happy to find him again with this novel.

May: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (USA, 1964) I wasn’t enthralled by A Farewell to Arms but reading about Hemingway’s experience in Paris sounds fascinating.

May (2): Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (USA, 1958) We haven’t been able to pick only twelve books. So we have two short books in May. I haven’t seen the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I probably will after I read the novella. My edition also include three other short stories. (House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar and A Christmas Memory) and I think the four stories were originally published together.

June: Time After Time by Molly Keane (Ireland, 1983)I have no idea how this one ended up in my TBR. Guy’s review was before I started reading blogs. Anyway, we were attracted to this story of four bizarre siblings whose routine is disturbed by the arrival of a long lost cousin.

July: Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi (Autro-Hungarian Empire, 1926) This will be my third novel by Kosztolányi, after Skylark and The Golden Kite. I love this writer and reading Anna Edes is a safe bet. I know I’ll enjoy it. It has been reviewed by Guy, here and by Max, here.

That’s all folks. That was our new selection. I’m looking forward to reading all these books and sharing my thoughts about them with you. Have you read any of them? Browsing again through the list, I realise we haven’t picked any French literature this year.

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